Lime Wash: The Eco-Friendly Classic Finish

Lillian SteinBy Lillian SteinNov 6, 20170

Lime wash has been used for thousands of years across the globe for the interiors and exteriors of homes and barns. If you are trying to duplicate the look of an old world European villa, consider lime wash as your wall finish.

Aside from lending authenticity that flat latex can never achieve, lime wash has many appealing properties that will make it popular for years to come. Learn more about lime wash, its advantages and disadvantages, and where you can use it best.

Traditional whitewash (a la Huckleberry Finn and his Aunt Polly’s picket fence), now more commonly referred to as lime wash, has similarities to plaster, paint, and stains, but is unique from all three.

The basic recipe is hydrated lime and water, although various ingredients can be added to improve adherence and durability, depending on where it will be used. The recipes, both old and new, are seemingly endless.

The original purpose for lime wash was never for effect, that semi-transparent quality that is valued today, but for practicality. Lime wash can only reach its practical purpose when applied in many thin layers, which results in a hardened, opaque covering. After a single application, a lime washed surface looks blotchy.

After drying, the wash “bloom” into its characteristic finish. Carbon dioxide in the air produces a chemical reaction in the lime wash as it dries, causing it to crystallize as it hardens. These calcite crystals sink into a porous surface, creating a tight bond between the initial coat and additional layers of lime wash.

Each tiny crystal refracts light not one but two ways, deflecting heat away from the surface. This explains the unmatched brilliance of the lime washed villas along the coasts of the Mediterranean. Compared to a coat of flat white latex paint, fresh lime wash is more visually appealing because it has the depth of an aged, stone-like surface.

Lime wash is a versatile medium, and is used today to create artistic wall finishes. Many pre-tinted colors are available, or the applicator can layer washes of different colors to achieve another hue. Although there is a slight learning curve in perfecting techniques, the average do-it-yourselfer can become competent.

Lime Wash Advantages

Lime Wash Advantages

  • Lime wash is a sustainable, environmentally-friendly product. It does not emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

  • Lime wash is naturally antibacterial, antifungal, and insecticidal. Many farms still spend a day in spring to recoat the lime wash in barns and chicken coops for this reason.

  • Lime wash allows walls to breathe, an important factor for homes made of certain substrates in damp climates.

  • When painted on an outside structure it deflects heat away from the building.

  • A basic lime wash recipe is very affordable. A 50-pound bag is about $20 at the hardware store. To this you will add 30-40 gallons of water (more or less until you reach the desired consistency). Even with three coats of lime wash, it yields a lot of square footage for the money. Unused hydrated lime powder can be used in the garden, or saved for future touch-ups.

  • A slightly easier option is lime putty, which is more expensive but is available pre-tinted. Lime putty is a 50/50 lime and water material, to which the applicator adds enough water to make the right consistency for painting.

  • Lime wash lends instant aging properties to a room, highly sought after in rustic, cottage, and French country décor.

  • Most people also admire the subtle changes lime washed surfaces undergo as they age.

  • Lime washed surfaces can be incorporated into any décor.

Lime Wash Disadvantages

Lime Wash Disadvantages

  • The best method of application is with a whitewash brush, so the process can be time-consuming, especially with several coats.

  • Lime wash is not a scrubbable surface, so it’s not recommended for kitchens or children’s rooms.

  • The finished surface is chalky and will rub off when touched. To remedy this one can scrub the dried surface with steel wool or fine sandpaper. The finished surface can also be sealed or waxed.

  • The surface must be compatible to lime to adhere well: earthen walls, adobe, brick, stone, unfinished timber, lime-compatible stucco and plaster, and some types of concrete.

  • If the home owner tires of the look, lime wash must be removed (washed, scrubbed, scraped) before emulsion paint can be applied.

Lime Wash Tips

Lime Wash Tips

  • If you mix it yourself, buy Type S hydrated lime. Skip quick lime, as that requires sitting for 3 months and can be dangerous to handle.

  • Lime’s high alkalinity makes it corrosive to eyes and skin, so wear latex dishwashing gloves and goggles when handling lime wash. Wear a respirator while mixing lime powders.

  • The lime wash mixture should be very thin, like milk. Do not apply thicker lime wash in an attempt at a faster job; the result will crack when dry.

  • Lay tarps to protect interior furnishings.

  • Schedule the project for a dry, mildly warm day, especially if the project is outdoors.

  • Thoroughly clean the surface to be painted from dirt or grease, and then rinse off cleaners so there will be no interference of chemicals when lime wash is applied.

  • Wet the area slightly just before brushing on the wash.

  • Brush out small areas, using strokes in every possible direction, and maintain wet edges.

  • Brush strokes will be less noticeable with each coat of lime wash.

  • Allow plenty of dry time between coats. In humid weather this could take more than a day.

  • Paint stores sell faux lime wash products. This might be a favorable option for some, but the product and outcome may be different than what is described here.

Where Does Lime Wash Shine?

Although lime wash needs a porous surface and pH compatibility, the possibilities for using it are numerous. Lighten up a brick fireplace. Add maturity to garden features like stone walls, fences and sheds. Lime wash terra cotta pots and vases for old world charm. Take advantage of its antifungal properties by using it in a mud room, stone basement foundation walls, and screened-in porch walls and ceilings.

When lime wash is not compatible with a surface, it will flake off. Lime wash is not recommended for dry wall and painted surfaces, although a qualified contractor may be able to remedy that. Pickling stain or a thinned-down paint whitewash (oil or latex) is preferable for wood applications like floors, furniture, shelves, and cabinets.

A willing heart and a little research into recipes for lime wash will lead you to a time-honored and practical method of preserving your home, while bringing the beauty of nature a little closer.

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